The 4 Elements of Curiosity: Leadership’s Superpower

curiosityCuriosity is the key to innovation. It is the approach to winning at relationships. It is the way to disarm the defensive and influence others effectively, the pathway to unlock hidden possibilities, ideas, and conversations that need to be had, and the antidote to judgment and blame. Curiosity is the most productive mindset and skill for navigating stress, uncertainty and difficult situations, and it is the attitude you need to adopt in order to create high-trust teams. It is also the best problem-solving tool I know of.

In short, curiosity is a leadership superpower, and in this article you will learn all about the four elements of curiosity and how to use them as a mindset, skill, and tool to amplify your leadership at every level.

Curiosity may be a leadership superpower, but it can be difficult to recognize in action. Alison Horstmeyer, PhD, humanistic and curiosity researcher and executive coach, describes curiosity as a “meta skill, a higher order skill that energizes and empowers other skills, for example, critical thinking, creativity, divergent thinking, empathy, collaboration, trust.” According to Horstmeyer’s assessment of available research, curiosity is one of the top four key character strengths that correlates with psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Indeed, curiosity is a helpful skill on its own, and it fuels many other useful leadership traits as well. Without it, the other leadership competencies become much harder to access.

The Components of Curiosity

Curiosity is complicated and multidimensional, which is why the benefits are so broad. It is not simply that you are curious or not; there are different flavors of curiosity that come in handy in different situations and environments.

A team of researchers at George Mason University — Todd Kashdan, David Disabato, and Fallon Goodman, alongside linguist and educational scientist Carl Naughton — recognized the complexity of curiosity, and in 2017, they created the five-dimensional curiosity scale (5DC). This model describes five components, or elements of curiosity:

  • Deprivation sensitivity occurs when people realize that there is a gap between what they want to know and what they currently know — and it comes with a strong desire to alleviate that thirst for knowledge. When people are curious in this way, they work tirelessly to find answers.
  • Joyous exploration characterizes people who are captivated by and interested in the world around them. This type of curiosity is often childlike and fun.
  • Social curiosity characterizes those want to learn what others are thinking and doing through observation, listening, and discussion. This is closely tied to an openness to diverse, original, and unique ideas and perspectives.
  • Stress tolerance is an aspect of curiosity where people can turn the stress and anxiety associated with change and originality into effective action.
  • Thrill seeking characterizes those willing and excited to take risks of all kinds — physical, social, emotional, financial, and otherwise — to do something differently or experience something new. They welcome surprises, novelty, and experimentation, and have a high tolerance for discomfort.

To make this framework useful for senior leaders, we need to simplify these components into characteristics that would support leadership. In fact, Horstmeyer has basically done just this; based on her research, she simplifies the 5DC scale into four characteristics of curiosity for leadership development:

  • Not knowing is a characteristic closely tied to inquisitiveness and the deprivation sensitivity discussed in the 5DC model, but its helpfulness extends far beyond the insatiable quest for knowledge. Not knowing also includes the importance for leaders to get comfortable with being wrong and not having all the answers.
  • Openness is tied to every dimension in the 5DC model. Underlying this and how it relates to leadership, is the capacity to listen and learn without judgment, avoid blaming, and welcome change.
  • Exploration is a blend of 5DC’s joyous exploration and social curiosity but goes beyond being interested in and fascinated by people and ideas to actually exploring these new ideas and perspectives. Creativity and innovation are functions of this characteristic.
  • Stress tolerance is one of the most important characteristics in leadership, as it relates to how effectively a leader can manage anxiety, stress, change, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) – which are inevitable and pervasive in today’s world of work. Because stressful, changing circumstances are so commonplace, being able to navigate them effectively as a leader is crucial.

These four components don’t operate as separate entities, but closely support one another. Also, although they are closely tied to the 5DC model, these four characteristics highlight the centrality of creativity and openness to curiosity more than the 5DC model does. Let’s take a deeper look at how each of these characteristics support leadership development.

Not Knowing: Letting Go of Being Right

Senior executives are accustomed to having all the right answers – so this particular characteristic of curiosity is particularly difficult – and important – for them. Often leaders got to their high level of success because they have been high-achievers their entire careers and are excellent at their craft – they have played the role of expert for years in their particular domain. But being a leader does not mean knowing all of the answers. In fact, knowing all the answers at the executive level actually inhibits the team’s learning, ownership, and innovation. There are few situations that present one clear “right” answer and being able to gather diverse perspectives when operating at a high strategic level is crucial.

Developing curiosity and a hunger for learning are especially important for those leaders who feel certain and absolute, particularly in uncertain conditions. This attitude of certainty often comes from a lack — or complete absence — of curiosity or interest in learning new things. Certainty cuts off alternative perspectives and solutions, making it difficult for diverging viewpoints to get airtime, whereas curiosity does the opposite.

The Buddhist concept of Beginner’s Mind may be helpful to adopt when you feel certain and, thus, lack curiosity. The term “Beginner’s Mind” refers to stepping into a state of unknowing. Whether you know how to do something or not, if you adopt a beginner’s mindset, you are unattached to your way of doing it. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the Beginner’s Mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” Meaning, if you are an expert at something, you likely do it the same way every time. But if you are a beginner, you try, test, and experiment with myriad strategies. In this way, the “not knowing” characteristic of curiosity fuels the exploration and openness characteristics. They all work together in leadership.

So, if you are the expert, try to adopt a beginner’s mind and pretend you are no longer an expert. This might look like being willing to be wrong, saying, “I don’t know,” asking for help, and detaching from the final answer. Prioritizing learning above ego or looking smart is often characterized as a growth mindset. This will lead you to be more inquisitive, which can lead to new discoveries and possibilities that would not have been made if certainty and expertise were driving your mindset. If you can step into this attitude of “not knowing,” you will be pleasantly surprised by what you might ask – and what you might discover. Even if you are already good at the task at hand, pretend you aren’t and be inquisitive.

At the heart of “not knowing” is an inquisitiveness that pushes us past the status quo. If you genuinely question why things have been done the way they’ve been done, where ideas and beliefs come from, and how to improve, you will gain deeper understanding of the current situation, as well a variety of forward-thinking solutions. After all, if you already have all the right answers, there is no room to learn or grow.

Openness: Improving Relationships, Team Dynamics, Empowerment, and Psychological Safety

Openness is a facet of curiosity that works as a beautiful antidote to judgment and a productive way to foster team engagement and trust. Asking questions in a curious way — without attachment to the outcome — can disarm the defensive, stimulate the disengaged, and invite opportunities for quieter voices to emerge. This means the questions must not be pushy or leading in any way, but rather open-ended.

The heart of openness is remaining nonjudgmental of new ideas and adaptable to what might emerge. To truly embrace an attitude of openness means you begin to question things in your life and the world around you with no attachment to the answer. This last part is the key. It is also closely tied to the “not knowing” characteristic of curiosity. Even if the subject at hand is something you know a lot about – pretend you are getting to know it for the first time and with wonder, begin to inquire, observe, and learn. To do this without judgment requires an incredibly high degree of openness.

On teams with psychological safety, all voices are heard from with relative equity. If you want to welcome all voices, you can’t judge ideas as they flow in. To create an environment that welcomes diverging views and ideas, a leader must create the conditions that invite – and even necessitate – that all team members share ideas and speak up – especially those that may not normally. These conditions might include systems, questions, and attitudes for the team to embrace. Get curious about how to create these conditions with your team and enroll your team’s ideas.

Leaders who are accustomed to criticizing or blaming team members create breeding ground for defensiveness and disengagement — not exactly fuel for psychologically safe and empowered teams. Instead, see if you can remain open, and see any given situation from various perspectives. When you find yourself disagreeing with someone at work or wanting to point a finger or judge an idea, try opening your mind to their perspective, instead.

Interestingly, you can’t be judgmental and curious at the same time, which is one reason curiosity is so powerful. Imagine if your team meetings require all attendees to remain non-judgmental of ideas that are shared. This is a powerful ground rule to establish and model for your team, and the mood of curiosity is the ideal attitude to support that ground rule. If a team is able to embrace openness as a foundation, the characteristic of exploration flows much more effectively, giving rise to creative and innovative ideas. More on that in the next section.

Plus, embracing a curious attitude is fun and infuses a sense of lightness into what may otherwise be tricky or heavy conversations.

Curiosity can also help teams out of disengaged states by empowering them to arrive at their own solutions. When you replace directives with open-ended questions, you remove yourself as the micromanager and crutch, and give team members the steering wheel. Practice being inquisitive and asking a lot of questions, rather than jumping in with solutions, and see where it might lead… often it will create higher levels of engagement and ownership.

With practice, you may find that it is really difficult to remain closed off to other people or ideas when you’re in a state of openness and curiosity. In fact, openness is the precursor to both “not knowing” and exploration, as the outcome of each depends on how open and unattached to the answer or solution you are.

Exploration: Increasing Innovation and Problem-Solving

When you exhibit the curiosity characteristic of exploration, you explore simply to learn. If you’re genuinely curious about something, you really want to explore it from all angles, not just explore with the hope of proving yourself right in the end.

Inherent to creativity and innovation is the ability to take risks. True innovation has never been seen or done before, and therefore is inherently risky. In fact, nine out of 10 startup businesses fail. Since most business ideas fail, and most entrepreneurs have to fail several times before they succeed, risk tolerance and a bias toward exploration is important.

Exploration leads to experimentation, which supports the fail-fast mentality, where you must fail before you can succeed. Without failure, there is no learning. Some people refer to this philosophy as a growth mindset, and inherent to it, is the ability to have some level of comfort with failure. To truly embrace the exploration characteristic of curiosity, you have to have some acceptance and desire to pursue high-risk solutions (that may fall flat) in an effort to evolve and grow. At the same time, if those solutions do fall flat, curiosity can help you manage negative experiences more productively and reframe negative experiences as learning experiences, a reflection of a true growth mindset.

Harnessing curiosity through this exploration facet means being comfortable challenging assumptions and exploring a problem from a variety of angles and perspectives. This can lead to far more creative solutions than moving forward with the first idea or solution on the table. In fact, according to Horstmeyer, “Research has shown that curious individuals demonstrate greater creativity, enhanced agility in changing environments, and more sophisticated problem solving.”

As Francesca Gina, professor at Harvard Business School said, “Curiosity is much more important to an enterprise’s performance than was previously thought.” She continued, “When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions.” Thus, at the heart of exploration is pushing past the status quo to find more creative and innovation ideas and solutions.

Of course, inherent to novel ideas and innovation is uncertainty, which brings us to the final characteristic of curiosity, and arguably the most important for leaders.

Stress Tolerance: Navigating Uncertainty and Building Resilience

One of the greatest benefits of curiosity is being able to sit with uncertainty and change with more ease. Ironically, curiosity itself also tends to lead us straight into situations characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA), as Horstmeyer explains: “the self-directed seeking exploration and immersion into certain situations that will have the highest potential for new experiences, and new information. Those situations tend to be uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.”

Uncertainty can cause a lot of stress for humans. This is because the brain fills in the gaps when it doesn’t know something or lacks a reference point. The brain first looks for familiar clues to categorize any given situation as either threatening or safe. If it can’t properly figure out whether or not something is safe, it will categorize it as a threat — just to be on the safe side. This threatening feeling is what causes the stress, discomfort, and sometimes fear – and can drive us toward safer, less innovative and effective decisions.

Martin Seligman, founder of the field of positive psychology, said “The human mind is automatically attracted to the worst possible case, often very inaccurately … Catastrophizing is an evolutionarily adaptive frame of mind, but it is usually unrealistically negative.” One study led by psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert found that people tend to overestimate the impact external circumstances will have on their emotional life, called affective forecasting. With these misjudgments of the future in the face of uncertainty, also comes a tendency to plan for the worst-case scenario and underestimate their resilience during challenging times.

The truth is, according to research, we are more resilient than we think we are. This tendency to focus on the negative and allow anxiety about the unknown to drive can cloud your ability to think clearly. It also inhibits your ability to make sound decisions and be the best leader, manager, parent, spouse, friend, child, neighbor, and human being you can be. Building a higher tolerance for tension, stress, and discomfort with the unknown will be incredibly helpful during today’s era of uncertainty and chaos.

This is where curiosity can really come to the rescue. First, curiosity increases our stress tolerance by alleviating the necessity people may feel to be comfortable in uncertain times. As Horstmeyer, said, “We must stop wanting or aiming to be comfortable and use our curiosity to get comfortable with what we do not know so we can embrace a growth mindset, evolve, adapt, and be content.” Curiosity is a wonderful attitude, mindset, mood, and tool to embrace to overcome complacency and comfort and keep up with changing, uncertain, and complex environments. Particularly curious individuals might be caught promoting positivity in high-risk situations by asking a question like, “What’s the best that could happen?” rather than “What’s the worst that could happen?”

In this way, curiosity increases our stress tolerance by promoting positivity even in uncomfortable circumstances. When a leader is in an ambiguous or uncertain situation, the tendency is to stick with low-risk solutions that cultivate stability. “Instead,” Horstmeyer advises, “we need to cultivate the ability to stay with and even enjoy the tension that arises when taking risks and trying new things.” This is where the stress tolerance facet of curiosity meet the other three to create innovation.

Curiosity has also been associated with lower stress and anxiety levels, stronger relationships, and less aggressive behavior, which supports leaders in being responsive to VUCA problems, rather than reacting to them from fight-or flight mode.

Not only have I observed curiosity to help people become more refined problem solvers and take on a positive perspective; there’s another huge bonus that often goes unnoticed. Clients have shared time and again that embracing a curious attitude is fun and infuses a sense of lightness into otherwise tricky situations.

At the same time, I’d be remiss not to mention that curiosity can have drawbacks, too. As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat,” there are some things that are just not your business, and your curiosity may lead you to want to find out anyway. Use your judgment, always, as being curious about other people’s personal affairs can get you into trouble. There are many ways to train this capacity, including working with a coach to help you cultivate curiosity.

Practical tips for modeling curiosity:

  • Rather than jumping in with solutions, practice being inquisitive and asking a lot of questions. Avoid being the first to jump in with advice and solutions; ask your team to begin the conversation with their ideas first.
  • In conflict, instead of attaching yourself to being right (even when you are right,) see if you can identify and connect with the 10 percent that is right on the other side of your argument to find some common ground, see the situation from the other side, and lower the temperature of a conversation, if heated.
  • Create a culture of experimentation, where trial and error invites new ideas, learning, and innovation.
  • Celebrate failures as opportunities to learn.
  • Explore unfamiliar ideas and challenge your assumptions often.
  • Instead of finger pointing and judgmental comments, try asking open-ended questions.
  • For three exercises to cultivate curiosity, read this article:

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.